Layden: Mikaela Shiffrin in uncharted waters after surreal double DNF

Posted at 11:37 PM, Feb 08, 2022

She sat alone in the snow, bitter cold against the sheer Lycra of her racing uniform, snow that had betrayed her just minutes earlier, snow that had been her lifeblood for so long, that had been her oxygen, a surface on which she was more comfortable than most humans on dry land. Snow that she had loved since she could barely walk, and on which she found her means of expression. She sat there for more than 20 minutes on the side of a race hill at the Olympic Games, as other racers whooshed past. She wondered if she had done everything right in her life or everything wrong. 

At 26 minutes past 9 p.m. on Tuesday night (in the Eastern United States, Wednesday morning in China), U.S. ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin had pushed out of the start house to begin the women’s Olympic slalom, a race for dominance, for gold, for retribution. Forty-eight hours earlier, Shiffrin, 26, had failed to complete the first run of the Olympic giant slalom event, falling to her left hip just seven gates and 11 seconds into the race. It was a shocking moment: Shiffrin is on the very short list of the best Alpine racers in history, either gender, with 73 World Cup victories (third-most ever), five world championships in three events and three Olympic medals. She is revered across generations for her otherworldly touch on skis, for creating almost a living connection with the snow beneath her skis. And she crashes out so rarely that it is an event in itself.

But she crashed in that race and as stunning as it was, it was an athletic occurrence. Or so it seemed. She was caught skiing too aggressively on unforgiving snow and went out. You could rummage for deeper answers – the two long years Shiffrin has spent processing the February, 2020 death of her father; days of training missed last fall with a back injury; 10 days in December isolation with COVID. The pressure, the pressure, the pressure … that comes with being one of the faces of the Olympic Games, with the possibility of winning five medals. But she fell. Snow is slippery, skis are narrow, and that’s ski racing. The show goes on. Shiffrin herself pointedly said she would not "dwell," because other events lay ahead.

On Tuesday night she fell again. This time in the slalom, an event in which she has won 47 races on the World Cup, more than any skier male or female; in which she has won four World Championships and in which won the gold medal at the 2014 Olympics at the age of 18. Again it happened suddenly. She lost control on the fourth gate and by the fifth was finished. Her run lasted only five seconds. Two races, just over 16 seconds of racing. If her giant slalom was shocking, her slalom DNF was surreal – she had failed to finish a slalom run just three times in the last eight years (although one of them was last month in the second run of a World Cup slalom in Slovenia).

SEE MORE: Slovakia's Petra Vlhova mounts massive comeback, wins slalom gold with Mikaela Shiffrin out

The slalom gold medal went to Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, with a brilliant second run. It was another narrative twist: Vlhova and Shiffrin have traded World Cup wins for three years

After skiing out on her opening run, Shiffrin drifted down the hillside, came to a stop near the honeycombed orange safety netting at the side of the course, clipped out of her slalom skis and sat down, knees pulled to her chest. A U.S. Ski team official sat beside her; eventually she rose and skied slowly to the bottom. So odd: She has rarely in her life skied to the bottom of anything slowly. Now she had done it twice in two days on the most significant competitive stage on earth.

She would later talk first with NBC’s Todd Lewis. And then with dozens of international broadcast and print journalists gathered at the base of the hill. She would cry. She would laugh. She would chastise her father for not being here to take her phone call. She would talk about skiing, about pressure, and about a life spent trusting the planks on her feet and plan in her mind, to only now wonder if it any of it works anymore. Ultimately, this: "I’ve never been in this position before," Shiffrin said. "And I don’t know how to handle it."

And this: "It’s not the end of the world," she said, as much crying the words as speaking them. "And it’s so stupid to care this much." Yet, of course, that is never stupid. It is the caring so much that counts most.

First, the athletic part. The easy part. It has been central to ski races at these Games that the man-made snow in these mountains 60 miles north of Beijing, where it rarely snows naturally but is quite cold, is miraculous, but also – that word again – unforgiving. That quality is what likely what helped undo Shiffrin in the GS, where she attacked. So what did she do in the slalom? "I had every intention to go full gas," she told Lewis.

And then later: "I was pushing, and maybe it was past my limit," Shiffrin said. "But I had the intention of doing my best skiing and my quickest turns, but in order to do that I had to push the line, the tactics … and things happen so fast that there is not the space to slip up, even a little bit. And I slipped.

"I don’t know," she said. "I started with a strong mentality, and then I was out of the course. If I’m gonna ski out at the fifth gate, what’s the point?"

After this, it gets denser, more raw. And it became clear that it was about the skiing, but even more, it was about her relationship to the skiing, a relationship that has defined her existence for most of her 26 years, and not in a bad way. In a beautiful way, that brought joy to her and her family and millions of others. But which can be all-consuming. She was asked what she thought as she sat in the snow.

"Just the culmination of the other day and today," she said. "It feels like a really big letdown. I tried to think about what I’ve been doing with my skiing. There was nothing that would suggest that I wouldn’t finish a single run. My skiing has been really solid. My entire career has been about trusting my skiing. If it’s good skiing, that’s what I have to rely on, on these race days."

Here it becomes even deeper and more personal. Mikaela and her older brother, Taylor, where raised by parents who had met as weekend skiers. Jeff, an anesthesiologist; and Eileen, a nurse. New Englanders who reveled in making turns on New England ice and Colorado powder. They raised their kids to ski joyfully, to – sorry – trust the process (long before it was a thing) of skiing beautifully and perfectly and correctly and letting success follow. Never letting the tail wag the dog. 

When Mikaela was five years old, she joined an after-school ski program for little kids in Vail, Colorado. The kids were told to ski down a little bunny hill while a teacher observed and placed them into groups based on their form. One after another, kids pizza-wedged down, until finally Mikaela arced a series of lovely parallel turns. The man at the bottom said, "Well, I don’t have a group for you." Jeff was the Zen Master of the Shiffrin process, a loving dad who just wanted clear turns and let the rest flow.

So in the wake of her GS DNF, Mikaela found herself turning back inward to those plans, those moments. "The pressure [at the Olympics] is high," she said. "The pressure is always high. I get nervous. But I didn’t feel like that was the issue today. When I have that feeling that I want to do well, I always go back to that fundamental idea that good skiing will be there for me." Again, the process. She wanted fast, beautiful skiing. "I’ve run a lot of races – podiums, wins – that I was skiing to protect something," she said. "Today, more than anything, I wanted to race it. I knew how good that would feel."

She trusted her skiing, and her skiing failed her. Or she failed her skiing. She sounded lost at times. "It makes me second guess the last 15 years," she told Lewis. "Everything I thought I knew about my own skiing, my slalom, my racing mentality." She fought back tears, sniffling through her mask. 

SEE MORE: Mikaela Shiffrin shares raw emotions after slalom DNF

Jeff died more than two years ago. Mikaela has talked endlessly about it. But grief lingers. At the bottom of the hill, she said, "Right now, I would really like to call him, so that doesn’t make it easier. So I’m pretty angry at him, too." But she also laughed. "He would probably just tell me to get over it."

The process endures. For a long time, it was just skiing, and then Jeff died and the process became something else, and now Mikaela is halfway around the world, struggling to find herself, and the process is something else again. Manifestly, her work is not done. She is eligible and entered in the Super-G Thursday night, and beyond that, possibly the downhill and the downhill-slalom combined, in which the Old Mikaela would be a heavy favorite. Hard to say now. "We’re not done yet," she said. "I will try to reset again." It can be dangerous to race fast with a cluttered mind.

She is hurting. "It all feels like a lot of work for nothing," Shiffrin said. But also full of the perspective that comes from suffering, more than from dominating. "Today in my race," she said, "I wish I had a little more space, a little more time. But I’m sure there are a lot of people wishing for more time in their lives." [That landed hard]. "I didn’t finish in the Olympics," she said. "Come on. I mean, it hurts. But in 24 hours nobody is going to care."
Pause. "Okay, maybe a little more."